PYONGTAEK, South Korea, May 4 (Reuters) South Korean riot police today fought pitched battles with anti-U S protesters and farmers as authorities moved to clear two rural townships to pave the way for a new U S military base.
About 1,000 protesters, many wielding bamboo sticks, clashed with police armed with batons in an area about 70 km (44 miles) south of Seoul where land for the base has been allocated.
Scores of protesters were hurt, with at least two, who appeared to be unconscious, carried away on stretchers.
Reuters photographer Lee Jae-won and about a dozen other journalists, wearing helmets and armbands identifying them as media, were also hurt after being beaten by police.
Lee suffered lacerated lips and hands.
The confrontation has been brewing for months since about 100 farmers refused to vacate the area where South Korea and the United States agreed two years ago to move the main U S military base now in Seoul and several others throughout the country.
The number of protesters, many of whom are anti-U S activists, unionists and students, swelled overnight after reports the government would send in thousands of police and military engineers to clear the 9.4-square km area.
Defence Minister Yoon Kwang-ung said the project, which had been authorised by South Korea's parliament, could no longer be delayed.
''It is unacceptable that some opponents of this national project are taking advantage of local residents by turning it into a political battle,'' Yoon said in a statement.
PRECIOUS FARMLAND South Korea's military would take no part in the eviction, and military engineers and ground troops deployed in the area would be kept away from protesters, he said.
About 30,000 U S troops are stationed in the country alongside South Korea's military to defend against possible aggression by communist North Korea.
South and North Korea remain technically at war under the inconclusive truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean war.
Seoul has said further delay in the base relocation could cause diplomatic friction with Washington.
Last-ditch talks between government and residents aimed at a compromise broke down on Monday. Local residents, mostly elderly farmers, and protesters have said no amount of compensation can justify the move.
''This is precious land that generations of farmers have made rich,'' said Song Hyun, 86, on the edge of rice fields before the police moved in.
''It is heartbreaking that they are trying to take such good land away from us.'' REUTERS KD HT1000